How To Market Sustainability While Avoiding Greenwashing


In March of this year, Forbes Research released the 2023 State of Sustainability Survey, capturing the views of C-Suite executives for multi-million dollar corporations on sustainability. This survey, in essence, was a vibe check aiming to understand how important sustainability really is to these large enterprises. A big collective sigh of relief was released when this report found that sustainability has climbed up the corporate agenda a whopping 65% in the last three years, becoming a top-3 focus for many organizations. In the 12 months following, we should be seeing a trend in corporations pledging to do something about their climate impact through three main initiatives – ensuring sustainable supply chains, lowering greenhouse gas emission and reducing plastic waste.

The depletion of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas has been long justified by humanity’s need to advance, develop and upload Shein hauls to YouTube. But as we, society, have advanced past the need to extract the Earth of its very finite resources, we’ve become very aware of the direct impact our choices have on our planet. While these choices to some might appear like thrifting and remembering to bring your reusable tote bags to the grocery store, to about 72% of consumers it means actively choosing to spend their hard-earned cash on brands that have proven to be environmentally conscious.

As a marketer, that metric shouldn’t be that shocking. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a real-time shift in consumerism as people more exclusively shop from and engage with brands that align with their views on social and environmental issues. Purpose-driven consumption makes up 44% of modern day shopping behaviors, making it the largest segment of consumers to date.

A report from The RoundUp found that 84% of customers say that poor environmental practices will alienate them from a brand or company. While it’s comforting to know that companies are really stepping things up on the environmental front, we can’t exactly pretend like we don’t know that the great majority of damage done to our climate has come at the hands of organizations not unlike the ones we surveyed.

For better or for worse, skepticism has become a huge part of consumerism today, and how could it not be? Before the age of disclosures, many of us were burned by advertisements boasting too-good-to-be-true testimonials, influencers “organically” promoting products they were quietly paid to post and reviews highly favoring whatever was being sold to us.

Brands making actual shifts in their practices as a response to consumer demand are right to want to shout it from the rooftops, but companies that promise to walk the walk towards a more sustainable future are expected to keep up, or prepare to be held accountable. In the Forbes State of Sustainability report, more than half of the surveyed CxOs from various industries expressed concerns about being called out for greenwashing, and rightly so.

Greenwashing leaves a stain on your brand that can’t easily be erased with a free gift with purchase. The concept refers to a kind of marketing in which strategy, design and copy choices mislead consumers into believing that a product, brand or service are benevolent allies in the fight against climate change. This deceptive form of marketing casts quite an unflattering shadow on your brand, and while it can’t always be seen as intentional, it is absolutely avoidable. If you’re a curious CxO, or marketer within an organization, here are some tips on how you can market your sustainability efforts while avoiding greenwashing –

Set realistic goals

It all starts with being real with yourself. Finding ways to measure your brand’s impact is one of the biggest hurdles that companies pledging to be more sustainable have come across, as sustainability standards vary across the board. Instead of starting with big lofty goals and then figuring out how to hit them, set actionable goals that can be measured and tracked over time. Success in sustainability efforts is measured in direct environmental impact.

Practice radical transparency

After setting realistic goals, say them loud, and be proud of your progress towards them. This can look like a quarterly report to your email subscribers detailing where you’re at, a frequently updated page on your website, or even a recurring social media segment. People aren’t expecting you to change how your business operates and fix climate change overnight, but you are expected to hold up your end of the bargain. Be transparent about where your product is sourced, what it’s made of and who is responsible for the labor behind it all. It’s in your best interest after all; brands who are upfront and honest with their audience are more likely to have an engaged and loyal consumer base.

Check yourself

It’s a crazy concept, but in order to avoid greenwashing, don’t make sh*t up. If your product is “made of natural materials” and those materials happen to be the byproduct of deforestation, you can’t with good conscience label that as sustainable, because it’s not. Review the claims you are making and flag anything that is unsubstantiated. Instead, focus your attention on claims you can truly back. Leaning on one good thing you’re actually doing for the planet can take you farther than many tiny meaningless buzzwords consumers know to look out for.

Make it legit

Legitimizing the work you do through reputable third parties allows you to market your environmental efforts with peace of mind. Earning a Fairtrade certification allows your audience to trust wholeheartedly that your products are being sourced sustainably and ethically. Partnerships with organizations like One Tree Planted are an incredible option for brands big and small who are looking to make a difference but don’t know where to begin. Their one-to-one model is seen in use across various DTC brands today, where for every product purchased a tree is planted. Virtual badges of approval like these make for less friction between your product or service, and the consumer on the other end.

Hire if you can

Having a dedicated sustainability officer who knows the work and is passionate about making a difference can serve as an internal gut check for your marketing department. A dedicated sustainability professional will not only ensure that you have realistic sustainability goals, but they’ll make sure you’re on the right path to hit them. Forbes found that companies with a chief sustainability officer are more likely to hit emission reduction goals, which is a really big deal.

In the coming year, 66% of companies surveyed by us reported a plan to increase their budget towards their sustainability efforts. This is ultimately good stuff. Skepticism aside, we want to see companies that have done some historic damage redeem themselves because they can do more in just a few years than any single consumer can in their lifetimes. Consumers are prepared to support brands that are doing their part, but they’re also well aware of the stench of inflated promises and unbacked claims. Best way to avoid a greenwashing scandal? Don’t greenwash.

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